As awareness surrounding the importance of sustainability spreads, an increasing premium is being placed on efforts to shift our society towards consumption patterns that are mindful of our impact on the planet in reference to climate change. But where do our current fashion habits fall in to this shift towards ethical sustainability, can fashion make this important leap in securing our future?
As a billion-dollar industry, it is no surprise that fashion is liable for a large portion of the permanent changes to the Earth’s climate. Britain’s footprint resulting from the consumption of clothing, for example, amounts to 1.7 million tonnes of material waste, 6,300 million cubic meters of water and 26 million tonnes of CO 2 (from production to disposal) per year. This puts clothing fourth after housing, transport and food in terms of its impact on the environment, according to new research by the government’s waste advisory body Wrap.
Despite significant progress made by brands and retailers to minimise their impact, energy, waste and water usage are predicted to keep rising. Many manufacturers are now using sustainable cotton initiatives and innovative dyeing technology to reduce environmental pressure, as well as reduce the usage of harmful chemicals as part of a UK-wide push to promote sustainability schemes.
However, whilst brands are beginning to reduce their carbon and environmental footprint, the problem has now shifted to consumption. The on-going saturation of fashion adverts, magazines and celebrity ‘looks’ feeds our constant desire to consume, and when identity formation is the leading cause of consumer habits, individuals regularly redesign themselves through the purchase of new clothes. In 2016, over 1,130,000 tonnes of clothes were purchased in the UK alone.
Theorists have argued that the idea of ‘multiple selves in evolution’ is central to fashion lovers. Vast consumer demands are – sadly – fuelled by growing insecurity, peer pressure and a desire to ‘fit in’ in a competitive world of ubiquitous social media. Thus, it will be impossible to radically cut our consumption patterns until an understanding of the relationship behind materialistic consumption and human satisfaction has been established.
Part of the problem lies in the complexity of today’s global supply chains. Consumers have been radically distanced from the origin and production of their clothing and are therefore blind-sighted from the detrimental side effects of their fast fashion habits. It seems only in the wake of catastrophic events such as the 2013 Bangladesh factory collapse that killed 1,137 workers (mostly women) that consumers have awoken to the reality of ‘fast fashion’. Events like these have seen the rise in anti-consumerism movements, with responsibility no being weighted heavily on consumers, who of course are free to choose if and what they purchase.
In a drive to prevent sweatshop labour, catastrophic factory incidents and global environmental degradation, anti-consumerist alternative models are developing within the fashion world. A sustainable fashion paradigm must open our eyes to the bigger picture, acknowledging human needs and desires through reviving our relationships with both ourselves and others, including the individuals who design and manufacture our clothes. ‘Slow Fashion’ encourages creative participation, reworking, swapping and mending our clothes to work towards the elimination of waste. It celebrates individualisation, unique and diverse styles, and the learning of new skills such as sewing.
Current industrial manufacturing fails to account for diversity amongst consumers, leading to many products being modelled to an unrealistic ‘average’ size, and the mass production of lines and lines of identical pieces. In order for a new fashion ethic that breeds self-love, diversity, ethical manufacture and environmental sustainability, the industry will have to be responsive to our diverse tastes. Slow fashion will popularise smaller, local brands and makers whose flexibility will allow for the production of one-off, personal items that allow consumers to re-connect with the manufacture process and express themselves through fashion.
This rampant rejection of the Fordist business model that dominated 20th century manufacturing – where ‘Fast Fashion’ culture fed disposable consumerism – derives from progress in technologies that respond closely to consumer demands. This ethic will strengthen relationships between buyer/user and producer as well as that between people and the environment. The notion of second hand and sharing between friends, encouraging recycling over disposability, and teaching young people to design and hand-make their own clothing will further engage us with sustainable ideologies. Garments designed for longevity that value social integration and evoke debates about our role in nurturing the planet will realign current identity-formation driven consumer habits with those associated with sustainability; it is about “designing confidence – and capability – including pieces that encourage versatility, inventiveness, personalisation and individual participation.
Article by Freya Marechal, 3rd year Fashion Communication student at Leeds Arts University